New museum tells America’s ‘unvarnished’ truth

Just steps away from the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on the National Mall another dream has been realized. The doors to a museum devoted exclusively to the preservation and commemoration of African American life, history and culture will finally open.

After 13 years of research and curation, on September 24, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture will unveil an expansive, awe-inspiring, gut-wrenching, hope-filling, tear-jerking and breathtakingly beautiful account of the African-American experience in this country.

“There’s so much to take in and so many emotions to sift through at one time,” said Janell Martinez, editor-at-large of, who previewed the museum with the media last week for her Afro-Latina audience. “I was a bit overwhelmed in the beginning. At first I was a bit upset and then as I moved upward throughout the museum, I began feeling at peace and filled with hope.”

It seems that’s the effect museum curators were going for when laying out the exhibitions for display. The story of slavery and freedom begins on the museum’s bottom floor— underground— where the telling of the story of the development of transatlantic slave trade unfolds in a display of original artifacts, media presentations and personal stories of slaves and slave-owners that chronicle how the slave trade began through to the Civil War.

“It’s not a sad story, it’s an empowering story,” Mary Elliott, co-curator of the “From Slavery to Freedom” exhibition, told the Baltimore Times. “And it’s not about shameful finger-pointing, like ‘hey, look what they did.’ It’ more about, ‘hey let’s talk about this.’ There’s a lot of ground to cover here.”

Throughout the entire museum are juxtapositions of profit and power against the human cost. People will witness how slavery was first commercialized and then racialized in order to continue to profit without being haunted by the cruelty of slavery.

“We wanted to emphasize the human experience and the humanity of people who lived through enslavement,” Dr. Nancy Burcaw, Elliott’s co-curator of the exhibition said. “Being in this space underground, in terms of this history having been hidden in the past, it is completely foundational and, just the radicalism of it. There’s so much black radicalism in this exhibition alone. We wanted people to feel as well as learn in their heads.”

Among the many priceless pieces from the “Slavery and Freedom” history gallery is the display of the Bible belonging to Nat Turner, leader of the bloodiest slave revolt in American history. The Bible was donated to the museum by the Person family, descendents of a Virginia family killed during the rebellion. According to Elliott, when they found out about the museum’s collection efforts, they felt it was the best place for the public to consider the history it represents, according to Elliott.

“That’s very powerful because that family is white and their ancestors were actually killed during that rebellion. But for someone to say it is important for us to bring to [the Bible] to public to wrestle with this history and to help us move forward is very powerful in and of itself,” said Elliott.

From there, the only way is up. A journey upward, two concourses reveal a slow but steady progression toward relief for African Americans. First is “Defending Freedom, Defining Freedom: Era of Segregation 1876-1968.” This exhibition takes visitors from the end of Reconstruction through the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. It is rich with history and artifacts that capture the major aspects of the ongoing struggle by the nation in general and African-Americans in particular to define and make real the meaning of freedom. The last history gallery, “A Changing America: 1968 and Beyond” illustrates the social, economic, political, and cultural impact of African-Americans on life in the United States. Subjects include the Black Arts Movement, hip-hop, the Black Panthers, the rise of the black middle class and, more recently, the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

The Reverend Jesse Jackson was among the few invited to preview the museum. The Baltimore Times caught up with him canvassing the “Making A Way Out Of No Way” gallery that conveys the ways in which African-Americans created possibilities in a world that denied them opportunities.

“In a period of real reactionary backlash, progress was made,” said Jackson of his reaction to the exhibitions. “But the irony is that the beneficiaries of that progress are fierce in their resistance to it. We have made great progress and yet there’s such fear around it. Some people make a living out of selling fear. The bottom line is that we were formed by hope.”

According to Jackson, the opening of this museum’s doors will challenge the work and thought of American history scholars.

“American history scholars must come back here to get their degree recertified,” he said. “Any American history Ph.D. that did not have this [information] in their history book did not have an authentic Ph.D. in American history. This is America’s history.”

North Avenue Rising Project promises efficient, effective transit

— Last school year, Brittany Patterson’s commute to work started at 5:45 a.m. on the 91 bus from Garrison Boulevard and Bateman Avenue. A few stops away at North and Bloomingdale, a block from Hilton Street, the crown of the corridor, she would get off and wait inside the bus shelter in front of the Walbrook Branch of the Pratt Library for the 13 bus with her two-year-old daughter asleep in her arms.

The 13 took her to Penn-North Metro Subway station, where she caught the train downtown to catch another bus over to the East side to her daughter’s daycare. From there, she went to her job as a classroom aide at Harford Heights Elementary School, situated near the rear end of the North Avenue corridor at Broadway.

The Penn-North station plays a vital role in Patterson’s everyday travels. Without it, getting to work would take a lifetime.The same is true for the nearly four million passengers who use the North Avenue corridor to connect to places of work, home and play throughout the city.

To that end, North Avenue, the Maryland Transit Administration’s (MTA) second busiest bus line, is getting a makeover as part of Governor Larry Hogan’s transformative BaltimoreLink Transit improvement plan.

Earlier this month, the MTA was granted $10 million of federal funds to complete the North Avenue Rising Project, which aims to revitalize the community and improve transit in Baltimore. The funds come from the U.S. State Department of Transportation’s Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) Grant. The grant compliments $14.7 million committed by MDOT, $1.6 million from U.S. DOT’s Federal Highway Administration and $1 million from Baltimore City.

“I want to make sure that we who have cars don’t forget about the people who have to take buses,” said Congressman Elijah Cummings at an August 12 press conference. “Transportation allows people to be able to live; it brings life to life.”

North Avenue was already included in the MTA’s $135 million revision of the citywide transit network. Most of the evidence of this plan at work is in midtown, between Howard Street and Greenmount Avenue. Street trees have sprouted from manicured median strips, bus shelters have been redesigned and beautified, and bike facilities are no longer few and far between and bike lanes have been placed on streets crossing the corridor in Charles Village like Guilford Avenue’s Bike Boulevard. Additional federal funds have secured improvements to the rest of the corridor that include dedicated bus lanes, transit signal priority at intersections, streetscaping, roadway re-paving, and enhancements to the Light Rail and Metro Subway stations.

Replacing transit infrastructures on North Avenue is about more than impacting the flow of traffic by adding of bike and bus lanes. It’s also about improving the quality of life for residents and reconnecting the city.

The transit-sector is a vital component of today’s global economy. Economic and development opportunities have become increasingly related to the mobility of information, goods and people. Efficient transport systems provide social opportunity and benefits that include increased accessibility to markets, schools, and employment that have a multiplied effect on the entire community.

According to the demographics presented in the North Avenue Rising Project’s TIGER grant proposal, unemployment in communities along the North Avenue corridor is 16.5 percent compared to the city’s seven percent; vacant houses account for 35.1 percent of dwelling space compared to the city’s 17.5 percent; and 24.7 percent of the population does not hold a high school diploma or GED compared to the city’s 19.9 percent.

“State-of-the-art infrastructure that supports multimodal transportation for city residents makes economic opportunities accessible,” said Mayor Stephanie Rawlings Blake. “Building effective transit infrastructure has positive impact on the quality of life of our residents including access to jobs and opportunities. When a resident has the opportunity to grow financially it is a positive outcome for the entire community.”

The North Avenue Rising Project is one of 41 winning projects around the country to be awarded the TIGER grant out of over 600 applicants. Congressman Cummings acknowledged this as a major feat for Baltimore and the state of Maryland. But more importantly, he commended the Obama administration’s commitment to a nationwide transportation plan to rebuild and expand transit lines around the country.

“I don’t want us to lose sight of the fact that this is a part of the Obama legacy,” said Cummings. “So many people don’t want to give him credit for anything. But as he leaves office I want to make it clear that these TIGER grants started because of him and they continue because of him and now all of us have to come together as he moves out of the White House to make sure these efforts continue.”

Cummings also made clear that in the face of national spotlight on the city’s challenges, his faith in the potential of Baltimore remains unmoved.

“I have often said that Baltimore will be fine. There are so many great things that are happening in our city. We are in one of the top five states for millennials moving in. Businesses are moving in fast. [We have] great leadership,” he said. “The question is never whether, to me, Baltimore will do well. The question is whether all of Baltimore will rise together.”

Harbour School students fight hunger, poverty with community service

Students at the Harbour School Baltimore are on a quest to fight hunger. In just three years, they’ve completed over 10,000 hours of community service and donated over 5,000 pounds of food to people in need. And as winners of the Lead2Feed Leadership Program competition for the third time in a row, the Harbouring Hope team has raised $75,000 for Meals on Wheels of Central Maryland.

This is the only school that serves students with disabilities to win this award.

Students at Harbour School are among the million-plus students engaging in the Lead2Feed Leadership Program–a free, Common Core-aligned resource of comprehensive lessons for teachers and advisors who want to cultivate leaders and promote service learning in their clubs or classrooms. At the conclusion of the 10-lesson or 6-lesson track, students are given an opportunity to hone their leadership skills by completing a team-based service-learning project that challenges middle and high school students to take action to solve hunger or address a need in their local or global community.

Siri Llamas, a high school English teacher at Harbour School, serves as program advisor for Harbouring Hope, a team of high school students participating in the Lead2Feed Leadership program and competition.“Lead2Feed is a really awesome program. It’s service-based learning, and it’s student-centered and it’s leadership–all the things we believe in here at Harbour School,” she said.

This year’s challenge released students to address needs in their community besides hunger.

“We saw that students were championing child abuse, human trafficking, and all kinds of issues in addition to hunger,” said a Lead2Feed representative. “And then the Harbour School entry came in and I said, ‘Wow.’”

Harbouring Hope submitted a community-service project that concentrated on advocacy and raising awareness about poverty, illiteracy, and hunger–of course. Drawing from leadership lessons learned in the classroom, Harbouring Hope members rallied the entire school to participate in a social action month. The team hosted speakers from local organizations, held cross-curricular lessons around the school and conducted leadership seminars at local schools on these topics.

The students published three children’s books entitled, “Harbouring Hope for Hunger,” “Harbouring Hope for Literacy,” and “Harbouring Hope for Poverty.” These books have been translated into seven languages and made available to schools around the world.

In 2015, the team donated a clean water tap, irrigation supplies and medicine to a struggling community in Africa and organized a food drive in partnership with Golden Ring Middle School that yielded 2,000 pounds of food that was donated to the Maryland Food Bank. The year before that, 12 schools in seven countries and 36 schools in the states benefitted from action packs on hunger, literacy and poverty, that included a student created healthy food cookbook, nutritional comics, vegetable seeds for creating a community garden, and a board game designed by Harbouring Hope,

Nina Pendleton is a junior at Harbour School and says her experience in the Lead2Feed program has inspired her to launch a non-profit organization that empowers individuals with disabilities with the resources and support they need to meet with success in life. She’s named it “The Nina Project.”

Sarah Schriefer, a recent graduate, has participated in the Lead2Feed program at her school since the beginning. This year she was inspired to come back and give her peers a hand.

“I’m really proud of what the whole group has done,” said Schriefer. “It has been a big inspiration to help others in need.”

The Harbour School is a Maryland State Department of Education approved non-public special education school serving students ages 6-21. The Baltimore campus serves students from nine school systems. Over 95 percent of the students are funded by the public schools. Students at the school have been diagnosed as having learning disabilities, high functioning autism, Asperger’s Syndrome, other health impaired (primarily ADHD) and multi-disabled.

“This is beyond the best thing that I’ve ever been a part of,” said Llamas about working with her students in the program over the last three years. “They’re just such an inspiration and I could not imagine not working at this school or working with these students.

“Not only are they changing the lives of others, they’re changing their lives–they’re changing my life.”

Lead2Feed is a national initiative created by The Foundation for Impact on Literacy and Learning and the Lift a Life Foundation, with assistance from the Yum! Brands Foundation. Over 3500 schools across the country have adopted the program.

It takes a a village to raise a brown girl

So many girls of color live in fear of their own beauty and potential because of the labels and limitations society imposes upon them. From social media posts of cat fights gone viral to “Love & Hip Hop’s” glorification of silicon injections to attract men and success, brown girls are encouraged–even expected– to be any and everyone except for who they are.

Baltimore's own R &B artist Brave Williams and Bravo Television's Cyrene Tankard were just two of the many speakers at the Brown Girls Village event.

(Photo: Renita Clark)

Baltimore’s own R &B artist Brave Williams and Bravo Television’s Cyrene Tankard were just two of the many speakers at the Brown Girls Village event.

Sharon Page, founder of the Brown Girl Village (BGV) movement, understands how self-hatred gone unchecked can defer dreams and dim hope for the future. She also understands that a little exposure can change the way a girls sees herself and the world.

“I was a little brown girl, but my mother exposed me to things like theater, ballet, traveling and the opera when I was younger, and that exposure just opened my eyes to all the possibilities of who I could be and where I could go,” said Page, a Turner Station native. “But, I realized that a lot of inner city girls are not awarded the same experiences as I had when I grew up because they lack the economic resources to take advantage of opportunities that may help them find their purpose in life.”

Given all that has transpired in Charm City this past year, Page, and BGV co-founders Shelonda Stokes, and Michelle Huff believe that the village approach to raising children still works and has put the old adage to action with the development of the Brown Girls Village Retreat, an initiative that aims to empower young women of color to serve, innovate and lead.

Over 100 young women from all corners of the “Charmed City” converged upon the Inner Harbor’s Four Seasons Hotel on Saturday, May 21, 2016 for a day of empowerment, education, and girl talk with a host of seasoned black women who have met with success because of their courage to walk courageously in their browness with no apologies.

“I think African American women are just so incredibly fly. I like that we can be who we want to be at any time,” Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake shared with attendees during a segment entitled “Used To Be You.”

“We can dress down and be fly. We can dress up and be fly. I just feel like as an African American woman we are the ultimate and the most fabulous chameleons. And I think it’s silly when [females] want to tear each other down when we can learn so much from one another. Instead of looking for ways to bring others down, we should look for ways to build ourselves up.”

Youth advocate and community organizer Erika Alston, founder of the Safe Kids Zone, was also among presenters at the conference. Her message to young women touched on practicing empathy toward one another by breaking down the definition of a “hater” as a wounded individual who has yet to realize their own potential.

Young women were given a taste of charm school with a lesson in fine dining etiquette over a three course meal by Joi Thomas, director of media relations at The New Psalmist Baptist Church and host of WEAA’s Gospel Grace.

“One thing I want you to always remember: If you were invited to a nice restaurant where the tables are set like this, don’t be intimidated. You are there because you deserve to be there,” said Thomas.

Over the course of the retreat, presenters imparted wisdom on topics from financial literacy and social networking etiquette to natural hair care and entrepreneurship, including Senator Catherine Pugh; singer, songwriter and actress China McCain of Tyler Perry’s House of Pain and Disney Channel’s “ Ant Farm;” and singer and R&B Diva Brave Williams.

“The most important part of your body are your eyes,” said Brave, a Baltimore native. “They hold your vision. You can be whatever you want to be if you protect your vision.”

Moving forward, The Brown Girl Village Retreat is slated to be an annual event in Baltimore and other major cities. It will be a part of the Baltimore African American Festival’s “Road to the Festival,” July 2-3. There will also be a BrownGirl Village event during the festival weekend.

“Our hope is that this experience will also inspire and empower our brown girls to continue to dream, no matter what their current situation,” said Page. “Brown Girl Village will help our young women to realize that anything is possible with hard work, dedication and determination and open their eyes to new possibilities.”